DECATUR, Ill. – Dense flocks of starlings, crows and blackbirds have proven little match over the decades for James Soules, a bird-control specialist who rids cities of winged invaders.
The birdman of central Illinois may be even better, though, at fending off humans who want to know his secrets.
The 83-year-old Soules has been chasing away birds from Bloomington, Springfield, Joliet and dozens of other towns for a half-century. The mystery surrounding his tactics has made him a local legend around Decatur, where he has been called a shaman and even the "crow whisperer."
Whether it's communicating with the birds or some other strategy, Soules isn't talking about his techniques — at least to people. The owner of Bird Repellent Co. says only that he does not shoot, poison or trap the birds or use lights, sounds or smells.
Decatur officials hired Soules years ago after failed attempts to drive off the annual hordes of aggressive starlings by lobbing firecrackers and blasting propane cannons. First, they had agree to his demand for complete secrecy.
The starlings began to vanish after a few weeks.
"I was amazed," said Dan Mendenall, a city official in Decatur. "It was almost like he wished them away."
After Soules' contract was allowed to lapse, the birds returned for a few years and kept coming back until the city hired him again. They haven't been back since the 1990s.
"He doesn't get rid of half or a third. They're all gone," said Mayor Paul Osborne. "They just fly away, and they don't come back."
Soules was often seen working long after midnight two years ago in a park in Galesburg, where he had a contract. As he moved from tree to tree, witnesses said the birds seemed to lift up. "I'm not exactly sure what he does," said Gary Goddard, the city manager. "But whatever it is, it is very effective."
Soules joined his father's successful family business in the early 1950s. He said that's when he developed his current foolproof method, and that's all he'll say about it.
Wild, sometimes half-serious speculation about his tactics involves everything from black mystery boxes to trained pigeons to hiring someone to dress in an owl suit.
"You're not even close," Soules said gleefully. "You haven't even got one-tenth of the secret."